What are the biggest stories looming on the global agenda? Building on our Agenda Weekly email update, each month we look ahead at the events and trends that will have the most impact.
Ratcheting: Clashes between Pakistan and India, a political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, Europe and the US at loggerheads over Iran: the geopolitical picture is looking more complex than it has since the height of the Cold War.
- Resource constraints: An underlying source of conflict in South Asia? Water. Our planet has its most populous areas in its hottest climates, and is experiencing rapid climate change.
To the wire: Brexit will consume Britain through March and well beyond. It has pushed Britain's politics to its limits. Brexit day is on March 29, and no one is certain if there will be a deal (perhaps by accident), whether there will be a delay, or what will happen if there is no deal. Uncertainty is already hitting the country’s economy hard. Right now, a “final” vote is scheduled for March 12. Delay or do-over are the most likely outcomes: both will be wrenching. The only upside, perhaps, is an upswing in Europhilia across the continent.
Slowing, not stopping.Trade tensions are one reason why the EU just slashed its 2019 growth forecast, while Internet giant Baidu is the latest company to report the effects of a slowing economy in China. In the US, the Federal Reserve expects slower but still solid growth this year. Markets may be growing cautious, especially about the medium term: 77% of business economists expect a recession in the US no later than 2021.
Trade Truce? Markets are hoping for a semblance of peace in the trade wars: the outline of a deal between the US and China has emerged, and the two countries’ leaders may soon meet. One motive for a deal is growing pain among both US farmers and industry. Yet the US may be opening two new fronts, with Japan and Europe, while it cripples the supreme court of world trade.
- Contributing factors: Underlying the trade war, frictions over intellectual property and technology transfer. But trade wars hurt the “winners” too.
- Forward view: The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on International Trade and Investment has identified four scenarios for the future of trade: technological disruption, sovereignty first, open international rules, and competing coalitions.
American (Robots) First. President Trump has a plan to put the US ahead in the race for artificial intelligence. Analysts give it mixed reviews, noting its lack of multinational collaboration. China too has a plan to lead in AI, one that involves new thinking on both national security and urban development.
The current leader in AI research? By one measure, it’s Europe.
Who will win? It may be to China’s advantage that it is starting from behind.
Smarter than you are. Underlying the AI race is a problem that all AI users face: it’s really, really hard to keep bias out. AI is also helping cybercrime become a good career option for criminals. The odds of getting caught and prosecuted? Roughly 0.05%. To keep powerful AI out of the hands of criminals, some companies are keeping more research secret.
Work less, earn more. It’s time to switch to a four-day week, a pair of professors urged at Davos. A business that tried it found positive results for itself and employees. Working less is a good idea for most of us, and a higher minimum wages also brings benefits in nearly every measure of well-being. Finland’s basic income experiment has boosted health and reduced stress - without any impact on employment.
- Forward view: Better wages and working conditions, along with the possibility of a universal basic income, are all part of the same need: to reduce inequality. That fight must be part of a broader strategy.
Climate litigation. A slew of lawsuits are making their way through the courts in the US, aiming to hold fossil fuel companies and governments liable - and thereby force action on climate change. Yet fossil fuel companies are responding to another incentive: shareholder pressure. A group of investors representing $32 trillion has already obliged one mining giant to limit coal investment.
In this section, we identify the stories that haven’t made the headlines but are likely to shape the agenda next month and beyond. The Forum's Strategic Intelligence team applied its AI knowledge tools to the content being published by the world's top think tanks. Here are the articles and ideas that bridged the most topic areas.
Design Thinking Without Deep Data Will Fail Our Customers in Global Health (Stanford Social Innovation Review)
14 February 2019
"Yet design thinking alone won't help us understand the 800 million people living in poverty, our customers in global health. The complexity of their needs calls for more comprehensive efforts in both diagnosing the problem and designing solutions. Above all, we need to focus on better data that go beyond simple tallies. We must do more than collect the ‘what’ information, such as how many women are breastfeeding. We must also know why our customers do what they do. We need to understand the structural factors, policies, laws, individual beliefs, motivations, biases, and influencers that play a significant role in how people make choices."
Are Cyborg Warriors a Good Idea? (Scientific American)
9 February 2019
"Officially, Darpa intends brain chips to help paralyzed and otherwise disabled veterans—for example, by allowing them to control computers and robotic limbs. Darpa is also interested in upgrading healthy soldiers, according to Gross. 'What the agency learns from healing makes way for enhancement,' he writes. 'The mission is to make human beings something other than what we are, with powers beyond the ones we’re born with and beyond ones we can organically attain.'"
AI Needs to Become Less Elitist (Harvard Business Review)
18 February 2019
"Schools aren’t the only institutions that need to rethink who’s qualified for AI work. The business world is missing out on the most obvious answer to solving the shortage of AI talent: retraining and re-skilling existing employees today for the jobs of the future. Those jobs will require people to understand the basics of AI regardless of title or discipline. Not everyone who receives this sort of training needs to have an advanced degree or plan to become a data scientist."
You Don't Need Tech Companies to Reboot Your City's Economy (Scientific American)
1 February 2019
"Fortunately, cities don't need to follow the classic cluster model. There's new evidence that regions can develop fast-growing business scenes even if some of the traditional cluster ingredients are sparse or missing. The Detroit area, for example, is home to only a handful of venture firms. But it's developing a distinctive mix of start-ups focused on what Detroit does best: manufacturing, robotics and next-generation transportation technologies, with a dose of software."
Finland’s basic-income trial did not much affect work incentives (The Economist)
14 February 2019
"Some UBI supporters may be disappointed that the scheme did not increase time worked. Unlike other benefits, which are withdrawn as claimants find work and so tend to discourage them from accepting a job offer, the basic income creates no such disincentive, because it is paid even after claimants take up work. But most proponents do not see employment as ubi’s primary goal. They will be cheered by the fact that the participants reported being happier."
Why Germany has no gilet jaunes protesters (The Economist)
7 February 2019
"...there is no obvious parallel in Germany to the insecure, ‘peripheral’ France of the gilets jaunes. Hidden champions create jobs and opportunities far from cities, limiting the brain drain. Local politicians are more responsive to voters’ demands than Jupiterian presidents in distant capitals. In troubled areas, Germany’s constitutionally mandated system of fiscal transfers across states can smooth globalisation’s rougher edges."
How Companies Can Adapt During Times of Political Uncertainty (Harvard Business Review)
22 February 2019
"By anticipating different political scenarios and preparing a range of strategic responses that make sense for each, firms can create certainty for themselves. Whether firms decide to rebalance their activities, or to flee as fast as possible through a shifting strategy, not only depends on whether they have the resources to do so – it also depends on their assessment of the level of uncertainty and their evaluation of both the risks at home and the risks of expanding abroad. Ultimately, the firms that will survive uncertainty are those that will have thought about how they would move forward once the storm has passed."
Rise of China's private armies (Chatham House)
8 February 2019
"As the value and number of Chinese investments increase with the Belt and Road Initiative, the risk of private security involvement and proliferation across Central Asia will increase. Thus far, Chinese companies have complied with local laws and only engaged the basic services provided by unarmed local security guards. If, in the future, Chinese companies decided to engage private security firms, it would be important to imagine what characteristics they might have."
We've Lost Touch with Our Bodies (Scientific American)
5 February 2019
"This lack of connection to our bodies can be looked at through a concept called interoception, which describes our awareness of internal bodily signals, including the detection of sensations such as hunger, thirst and heartbeat. Interoception is a process by which our brains/minds make sense of these signals, which serve as a running commentary or mental map of the body’s internal world across conscious and unconscious levels of perception. Our culture, technology and medicine have progressively made us into poor interoceptors."
Automation won’t bring an apocalypse—but that doesn’t mean it will be easy (Brookings Institution)
4 February 2019
"…the expansion of IT-powered automation in the decades after 1980 helped displace millions of ‘routine’ middle-skill jobs, forcing large shifts of workers into low-wage service employment as robots and computers substituted for factory and clerical work. In short, the first wave of digital automation very likely contributed to the decline of the middle class, the explosion of inequality, and perhaps even the 2016 election backlash. To that extent, a future that portends more of the same seems as much cause for disquiet as reassurance."